Donald Glover was never good at staying in one place. By his early 30s, hed already attained the kind of career most dream about. First as a writer on 30 Rock, followed by a leading role on the cult NBC comedy Community. During that same stretch, he springboarded from mixtape-maker to bankable rap polyglot, all while getting a taste of movie stardom. Glover was an enviable everyman.
That was around 2016, the year he unleashed Atlanta, his sometimes bizarre FX drama about the psychological tolls of Making It While Black. Alongside meta-comedies like Fleabag, it swiftly became TVs most self-defined and self-propelled show. Its arthouse realism was the juiciest of fodder. No topic was off limits: Glover juggled themes of economic hardship with the same grace and eye-twitching absurdity he did mental trauma, fame, and domestic relationships. All those thorns, he suggested, grew from the same vine. It was hard not to get entangled.
In the marrow of Atlanta, like in much of Glovers art, was a primary question: How do people come to know themselves? The show was smart to never settle on one remedy in particularits genius is in its textual and subtextual slipperinessbut the question maintains a weighty relevance in Glovers other pursuits. In his comedy. In his acting. In his video work. And most of all, in his music as Childish Gambino. Across his first three major releases, he created material in an unblushing polyphonic: He was a showman, a self-styled trickster, a stubborn enigma. Even as he accrued more movie bonafidesplaying a sliver-tongued Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Storyand starred in the Amazon musical Guava Island, he discarded old selves for new ones. He never questioned his own transformation, he simply ushered more versions of himself into the world. Which version of Glover fans came to know depended on which they chose to latch onto.
With each new record came a different skin. 2013s Because the Internet was disjointed and free-thinking, an occasionally bright R&B proposition (3005; the Lloyd-assisted Telegraph Ave) that was ultimately stuffed with too many ideas. What that album lacked in direction, 2016s astral-soul reboot, Awaken, My Love! made up for handsomely, with echoes of funk stewards Bootsy Collins and Prince anchoring it around themes of futurism, empathy, and community.
Gambinos music typically unzips as a series of questions, obtuse shapes without concentrated form. Its art that doesnt like to settle, art that is all the more alive in its indefiniteness. The shape the inquiry takes is more enriching than the answer it offers. Which is to say, there is a consciousness in his asking. His haunting trap-gospel, 2018s This Is America, was just that. The song envisioned a world of gun and flame (the Hiro Murai-directed video only heightened the songs stakes; it depicted a house of horrors with no way out). It was both question and statement, a condemnation and a mirror offering a different way forward. It was a version of Gambino we hadnt encountered before, and havent totally since.
Gambinos new album, 3.15.20, isnt a release from prior selves so much as a puzzle-box holding every prior version of who hes already been. The songs12 in totalwere recorded in the last three years with his go-to collaborator, the Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson, and DJ Dahi, the Inglewood producer who has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Vampire Weekend. One of the more tempting features of the album is its movementsongs slink, spur, spaz, and gush at surprising intervals. 12:38 unspools with a thread of pleasure-seekingDark chocolate, sea salt/ I took a bite/ She said, We gon have a special night, Gambino sings in an oily harmonybut culminates with brash, spare lyricism from 21 Savage about police force, before swerving back into a euphoric state via Kadhja Bonets closing hook.
The shifts arent completely thematic. The backbone of 35:31 takes its inspirations from country but shifts into a fragmented, Auto-Tuned jambalaya just before snapping shut. Algorhytmn sounds like Terminator meets Yeezus, an AI choreopoem that lifts its chorus from Hey Mr. DJ, Zhanes 1993 R&B classic. The changes dont always make sense but the allure of Glovers cultural project has always been its frame: The questions within have no uniformity. You watch and listen because youre not quite sure where hes going to take you. Its like falling down a rabbit hole with no end. His music has no bottom to it.
As Childish Gambino, a lot of Glovers work hinges on dissonance. His art is about the loud colors it generates as much as the shadows it leaves behind. Theres interpretation waiting to be deciphered everywhere. Created in this register, his end has never focused entirely on the universal. Consider how he chose to label the albums songs. Ten of the 12 tracks have no formal title, and are instead marked by the time signatures they appear on the album. The album title, 3.15.20, skews to the same logicits the date the stream first emerged online, before disappearing a few hours later. (Sanford Biggers, the New York-based black visual artist whose work, like Glovers, is designed to equally enchant and hoodwink, practices this same form of non-identifying with his mixed media.)
That decision seems especially apt to this moment were in nowself-isolated, alone, the hours slowly dripping by. Time is all we have. It's our most precious asset. Its not that 3.15.20 is incomplete or scattershot or a vague patchwork of black pathos. Its something beyond that. Glover wants us to fill the minutes with our imagination. He wants us to make the album our own.
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